1. HAMMOND EGGS
It’s PMQs day again and as Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn square up at the despatch box, you can bet the issue of ‘leadership’ gets an airing. Labour will want to build on their party conference, while the Tories will want to quickly forget theirs. May could point to the continuing march of Momentum, but Corbyn may declare this is a Government that lacks any forward movement at all. We could even see coughing gags (‘the final nail in her coughing’, ‘time to cough up for public sector workers’ etc etc), some sweet, some sour.
Corbyn’s choice of topics for PMQs is often unexpected and while everyone is thinking about Brexit he could opt for the NHS, given fresh worries about new cuts deployed to fund any pay rises (see below). Yet Brexit is very much the dominant issue for many on the Tory front and backbenches. Seizing on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s unease, the Labour leader could have fun simply by quoting May’s admission she will ‘start off’ the Brexit transition with the ECJ continuing its jurisdiction.
He could also just quote Philip Hammond’s article in The Times in which the Chancellor warns Brexiteers he won’t necessarily dole out huge sums on ‘no deal’ preparations. “We will only spend it when it’s responsible to do so,” he says. No.10 sees this as a statement of typical Treasury caution ahead of a Budget, but others see Hammond smacking down Cabinet colleagues, who told the Sun yesterday they wanted billions to spend on things like new port facilities at Dover. Boris allies will want to know why Hammond’s been allowed to stir things up again, while their man is sat on. The Chancellor is before the Treasury Select Committee at 9.45am.
For Labour, opposition to a ‘no deal’ Brexit is the one thing that unites its own warring factions (and could lead it to vote against and/or demand a new referendum). Corbyn’s hand was strengthened by NHS chief Simon Stevens admitting yesterday he had not been asked to prepare for a ‘no deal’ outcome and the impact it would have on NHS staff levels. A former immigration enforcement chief yesterday said the Home Office “cannot cope” with Brexit, while a new study warned farmers’ incomes would be halved without a deal.
Hammond sounds like he’s egging on the PM to face down the no-dealers, while simultaneously offering them the illusion of preparations. Indeed, Brexit sometimes reminds me of the Beatles’ song ‘Yesterday’, the melody of which appeared to Paul McCartney one night in a dream. He had no lyrics, so came up with the working opening of ‘Scrambled eggs/Oh my baby how I love your legs/’. Brexit is currently a tune without lyrics. But the words are going to have be written soon if it’s to become an enduring British classic.
2. WOULDA, COULDA, SHOULDA
It’s unlikely that PMQs will see a repeat of the clear unease on the Tory benches seen behind Theresa May during her Commons statement on Brexit on Monday. The 1922 Committee meeting tonight, which had been due to hear reprimands of Boris’s conference conduct, may focus more around protecting the PM from the Shapps plot.
But the unmistakeable smell of decay of her premiership lingers and the strong whiff emerged again in her LBC interview last night. Asked the canny question if she’d vote Brexit if the EU referendum were held today, she replied with a non-answer: “What I did last time round was I looked at everything and I came to a judgment and I would do exactly the same this time round.”
I was surprised May didn’t repeat her mantra of last year, that she’d said “the sky won’t fall in if we leave”. Jeremy Hunt had told LBC that he would indeed vote differently, saying George Osborne’s dire forecasts had not materialised and Brussels was being even more intransigent. To be fair to the PM, she did say circumstances had changed, but didn’t go as far as Hunt. But as the Telegraph’s Michael Deacon memorably puts it in his sketch today, it was as if May had delievered ‘a vote of no confidence in her own leadership’.
What was just as notable was Damian Green’s answer to the same question on Newsnight. He was much more robust in defending his Remain view. Asked if he still thought it would have been better had the country voted Remain, he replied: “It would have been”. Corbyn is unlikely to want to get into ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda’ politics today, but maybe a Labour backbencher will have some fun with it.
3. HUNT THE PAY RISE
Labour’s new Battersea MP Marsha de Cordova has had a series of firsts this week (she made her maiden appearance at the despatch box as a shadow minister) and yesterday she struck gold in Health Questions. Pushing Jeremy Hunt on the public sector pay freeze, she got this reply from the Health Secretary: “I can give her some good news: the pay cap has been scrapped.”
Hunt had earlier pointed out that without the cap, the Government couldn’t have afforded to hire an extra 30,000 NHS staff since 2010. But his bold statement that the cap had indeed been “scrapped” naturally prompted huge interest. This was the first real signal that doctors and nurses would finally get a pay rise (though Hunt couldn’t say if it would be at or above inflation) and not just ‘flexibility’ promised by May. No10 seemed caught off guard and tried to play it down, but the Royal College of Nursing said Hunt had “listened” to nurses.
Was the Health Sec trying to bounce the Treasury and No.10 again? Don’t forget he was the first minister, way back in June, to say he was ‘sympathetic’ to ending the cap. There’s a kicker, though. Yesterday, when asked if the pay rise would be fully funded or paid for by fresh cuts, Hunt admitted the rise would be “partly linked to productivity improvements” negotiated with HMT. Labour’s Jon Ashworth wasn’t slow to seize on the spectre of more cuts to hospitals. HuffPost revealed this summer that Hammond wants all pay rises to be partly funded by departmental savings, and it looks like he means it.
4. NOT SO SPECIAL FRIEND
Workers at Northern Ireland’s Bombardier plane factory have flown to London and will be unfurling a big banner outside Parliament demanding MPs protect their jobs. After BAE’s own redundancies announcement yesterday, their worries are very real as the trade dispute with the United States threatens their livelihoods. The White House has backed Boeing’s call for a massive tariff to be slapped on Bombardier in retaliation for claims it receives state subsidy to make its own planes ‘absurdly cheap’.
This is a game of brinkmanship, with Theresa May under huge pressure from the DUP and unions to protect British interests. When asked in the Commons yesterday if Boeing was putting at risk its commercial interests (and defence contracts) in the UK, Business Secretary Greg Clark replied: “Yes”. He added that “partners don’t take the kind of action” Boeing wanted. Theresa May raised the issue in her call to Donald Trump last night, and is acutely aware the threat of US protectionism doesn’t bode well for either her US-UK post-Brexit trade deal or her wider claims to still have a “special relationship” with America.
The Iran nuclear deal is another area where May is hoping Trump can prove he listens to a key ally, though the stakes are even higher than a localised trade dispute. No.10 told us last night that the PM had used her phone call to urge the President to recertify the deal, as it was “vitally important for regional security”. This was a rare public shot across America’s bows, but is aimed to strengthening the hand of sympathetic voices in the White House and Republicans in Congress who don’t want to impose sanctions. Trump is often considered certifiable himself, but could he step back and just leave the deal in limbo rather than ditch it?
5. TALKING SHOP
It’s not every day you get a namecheck in Parliament, let alone an emergency debate because of a morning email/blog you wrote. Yet that’s what happened yesterday, as MPs demanded to know if the Government would repeat its practice of last month, when ministers avoided a Commons vote on Opposition motions on the NHS and tuition fees.
Many Tory MPs were upset that the debate ‘Government Policy on Proceedings of the House’ was even taking place at all, viewing it as the worst kind of navel-gazing. Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael pointed out the debate wouldn’t have been necessary if the Government had been clearer in recent weeks about its intentions. Some saw it as part of a wider ‘power grab’ by the Executive from the Legislature.
So, what’s the row about? Well, under pressure from the DUP and her own MPs, Theresa May told her troops not to oppose two Opposition motions on NHS pay rises and tuition fees. As a result, no vote (or ‘division’ in Parlyspeak) was held. And what particularly worried Labour was a claim from a Tory source to HuffPost that the practice would be followed for all future Opposition Day debates and motions. Carmichael said that would reduce the Commons to a mere ‘debating society’, others feared it would become a ‘talking shop’. Shadow leader Valerie Vaz said the plan would “make a mockery of Parliament”, though former chief whip Mark Harper dismissed the claims as an overblown reaction to the Government simply changing policy. Tory backbencher Peter Bone made plain his unease, however, that Commons motions could simply ignored (everyone remembers Government backing a motion on circus animal cruelty and then doing nothing).
After nearly two and a half hours, and some obfuscation, we finally had from Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom a bit more clarity. “We will look, case by case, at Opposition motions and make decisions accordingly,” she said. There is no ‘blanket’ policy to ignore Opposition motions and prevent divisions, she suggested. Let’s see what happens the next time Labour tables a motion designed to get DUP support.